I’ve been asked by friend, family and sometimes complete strangers to tell my PTSD story. I”ve always sort of skirted the issue. Mostly it was because PTSD is such a shame prone thing and I am always suspicious of why they are asking? The other reason is that I’ve already announced that it is me who is writing it and this makes it even worse since it opens me up to all ridicule that anyone can give while hiding behind their computers. Normally my suggestion is for each to anonymously explore their PTSD with no possible feedback. Each of us have one thing in common and that is that we have admitted that we have PTSD, but the circumstances vary from person to person. The quote that I say is that all PTSD is the same only the circumstances are different.
I’ve shared some of my experiences at this site already. I can’t be sure if all or none of these incidents contributed to my PTSD. I’ve examined my PTSD for over 40 years and still I’m not sure why I was selected to get this terrible thing, but I would have gladly passed it on to someone else if they were interested. I never have gotten any volunteers for the assignment.
I will relate a few more moments that I’ve identified, in my mind, as possible contributing moments. I don’t claim them as being greater or less then things you may have gone through. I choose not to judge these things and my hope is that you may find the courage to just begin the process of telling your own story.
My job in Vietnam was something called a P.A.I.R., which was a Province Area Intelligence Representative. I came to learn later that there were only a few of us throughout Vietnam since it was a new program and I was the only one who was able to get the program going. Kudos to me.
In essence, the program was to select, train and run(manage) native intelligence gatherers. These Vietnamese people would be paid for their eyes and ears. They would gather the intelligence and then report to me regarding the information that they had received. I would rate the information relative to other information I also received from others and then pass it on to the appropriate military group that might be able to react to it.
I say “the information” because not all intelligence is good intelligence. Just like information gathered through torture is flawed, at best, and out and out wrong at worst. The same was true for paid intelligence. My intelligence network would get paid whether the information they supplied was absolutely true or completely false. In order to commit troops to any of it , however, took some skill on my part. I had to decide whether my source was reliable judged against other information he or she had provided and then to judge whether the information was credible, based on other intelligence that I may have received.
On this occasion I received what I felt was very reliable information from a good source. It was that there were a group of Viet Cong (VCs) were gathering near the Parrots Beak which was a specific location along the Mekong River. A helicopter full of our troops was dispatched to the location but before it could be engaged it was shot down and everyone was killed. I don’t recall the number of fatalities, but I think it was somewhere between 15 and 20 guys. I remember feeling guilty that I was in some way responsible for this outcome. I wasn’t haunted by it at that time, but it was in my consciousness and even now I question whether there was anything else I might have done to perhaps avoid their fate.
Several days after this incident occurred, I was approached by a friend who was a FAC (Forward Air Control) pilot, a fellow officer with whom I had become friends with. He asked if I were interested in going out to see the location where this incident had occurred? I agreed to go.
FAC planes are low tech planes that are used to fly around and inspect locations for new fortifications or any changes that might be happening in a certain location. There are no guns on these planes, and they are simply a two-seat propeller driven aircraft. Though I had been on planes and helicopter before this was a first for me to be in such a small plane. I sat behind the pilot more in the rear of the plane and through a lot of the flight I was fighting nausea which I’ve heard is quite normal. We wore helmets that were like football helmets with a microphone attached so that we could communicate. Throughout the flight the pilot was pointing out different things that were visible from his perspective. Since I had never been on such a flight before I had a hard time adjusting my sights to what he was talking about when he would point things out to me. Of course, he was experienced and used to the various things he was pointing out.
We were not very far from our destinations where the crash had taken place when suddenly he took his M16, pointed it over the side of the plane and started firing toward the ground. I kept looking around trying to see just what he was shooting at.
Let me digress for a second. In South Vietnam, which is where most of the fighting was being done had two different zone. One was a “No fire” zone which was reserved for hamlets and cities where supposedly our allies were living and working. Then there were “free fire” zones which were supposedly the areas where no allies should be located. Therefore, anyone in this area would be considered an enemy and fired upon for the crime of being in this area.
The Parrot’s Beak was in a free fire zone as was the area that we were now circling where the crash occurred. I asked my friend, the pilot, over the microphone, “what are you firing at?” He said in a confused state, “Can’t you see the VC running down there?” I looked again and could not see anyone. He gave me more of a description and a focal point and sure enough I saw a guy running and then diving into a bunch of bushes. I must honestly admit that I really had no interest in killing anyone let alone this guy who had done nothing to me, but I felt obligated to fire. A weird peer pressure thing which had lives at stake.
When shooting a gun during the daytime it is impossible to see exactly where you are shooting because the bullets fly so fast that they become invisible. To correct this, there is a tracer round that comes every 3-5 rounds. For those who aren’t familiar with a tracer, it is a bullet that has a phosphorous attachment which glows red and can be seen by the firer. This corrected one problem, but the second problem we had was that we were circling overhead and not in a stationary position we were experiencing the “Doppler effect”. This is an optical illusion that occurs where the bullet looks like it is bending as it leaves the gun. Trying to compensate for this bend is not easy for someone that has little or no practice doing it. In any case though we were firing we were not having any success or at least I don’t think that we were.
Then my pilot friend said, “We are taking ground fire” I became more seriously concerned. This was alarming news since we were flying in leisurely circles above this person and his hiding place. I asked him how he knew, and he said that as the bullets passed by, they sounded like “ping pong balls”. These planes were not meant to be targets and I wondered what would happen if the shooter got lucky and one of the bullets happened to strike us? Before I could ask him this question, he said that he was going to be off-line for a bit and that he was going to call in airships. Apparently, there are two separate radios, one for the two of us to talk internally and then one for him to talk to outsiders. I suppose this was a good thing to keep the channel relatively clean without me asking more stupid questions.
We continued to circle, in the distance, I could see two helicopter gunships approaching and they started to make diving runs but not at the area that we were circling. I thought that perhaps they had another person that they were firing at. Actually, they had the wrong coordinates and they were attacking nothing. I’m assuming that they again communicated and were redirected to our area. The gunship had asked for us to “Drop smoke” Smoke are really canisters of smoke that are mounted on the wings of the plane. In order for the canisters to be effective they must be dropped at a vertical angle which is straight up and down. This makes the identified area much more precise as the can drops directly down from the wings to the exact spot where it is intended. Keep in mind I had heard none of this.
My last communications from the pilot was “We are receiving ground fire”. All of a sudden, our little plane headed skyward only to be reversed and headed directly into the clump of bushes where I knew the VC was hiding. I first thought was that we had been shot down and that the pilot had decided to be a hero and to take the VC hiding in the bushes with us. Sort of a Kamikaze action. We got closer and closer to the ground and I was bracing myself knowing I was going to die and all I could envision was a list with a red line drawn through my name. I couldn’t believe that I had volunteered to be on this airplane, and this was how I was going to die in Vietnam. Suddenly the pilot released the smoke canisters and the canisters ejected and started floating straight down. The concussion of their release seemed to make the plane stand still momentarily and we suddenly again reversed our course and headed straight up and away from the spot.
The helicopters quickly swooped into the area and pelted it with rockets and machine gun fire and I’m fairly certain, they killed the guy.
Later on, I thought of this incident and the strange logic of the no fire and free fire zone areas. Of course, it would be logical that most of the Vietnamese people would become aware of the free fire zones, but I started thinking, “Wouldn’t the VC intelligence have trained their troops to avoid these places too?” I would think so. Then who would be dumb enough to wander into these areas? My conclusion was that it would be, for the most part, the simple farmers who were not privy to intelligence.
I’ve come to believe that this might have been a pivotal moment because I’ve had this airplane crashing dream many times and I awake in a cold sweat.
Moment by moment, event by event. PTSD can take a foothold even when you least expect it.